Introspection amid the exuberance Delacroix show at the ++ Philadelphia Museum of Art presents an old master on the cusp of modernism.

September 27, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It is a scene of quiet after the roar of violence. The mob who stoned the saint to death is gone. Three people struggle to lift the lifeless body as a woman kneels and wipes blood from a step.

One can imagine it on film, with only the sounds of the heavy breathing of those carrying the body and the slight scratching of cloth on stone. Although six people inhabit the picture, the silence and solitude of death permeate it.

This little painting, "Saint Stephen Borne Away by His Disciples" (1862), only 18 by 15 inches, is typical of "Delacroix: the Late Work," a surprising exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Delacroix (1798-1863), the French and American organizers of the show chose to concentrate on works from his last 15 years. The great romantic painter's mastery of color and emotional expressiveness remain in his late paintings. But those who expect vastness of scale and flamboyant passion will find a far more ruminative mind at work, one in many ways in tune with the doubts and pessimism of the modern age.

Delacroix stands at a crossroads in the history of art. It is hard to know whether to call him the last of the old masters or the first of the moderns, and maybe he was both.

His painterly approach, emphasizing color and texture rather than outline and contour, recalls such artists as Titian and Rembrandt. The decorative exuberance of his work, including his major mural commissions, owes much to baroque masters such as Rubens.

On the other hand, his broken brushwork and use of white underpainting to achieve luminosity influenced the impressionists, and his expressive and symbolic use of color foreshadowed van Gogh and the expressionists.

Cezanne, the great god of modern art, placed Delacroix correctly at the meeting point of tradition and modernism by saying, "We all paint through him."

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugene Dela-croix was born in the wake of the French revolution and grew up amid the upheavals of the Napoleonic era, an apt milieu for the formation of an artist of romantic intensity as opposed to classical reserve. Major early paintings include the huge "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1826, 12 by 16 feet), with its bold light and color, its writhing figures, its overt emotionalism and its imaginative power.

His most famous work is probably "Liberty Leading the People" (1830), which depicts no specific incident but an allegory in which the semi-nude figure of Liberty dramatically leads a tatterdemalion mob amid the smoke of battle.

Works such as "Liberty" established Delacroix as the leading romantic painter of his time. But the late works reveal the introspective and psychological aspects of Delacroix most strongly, and in so doing connect him with the modern sensibility.

By the late 1840s, Delacroix was struggling with concerns both personal and universal: the loneliness of life, the inevitability of death, the difficulty of faith, the increasing inability as one ages to divide the world into right and wrong.

The Philadelphia show is installed by subject matter, such as literary and mythological subjects, animals and hunts, religious paintings. Such groupings allow the viewer to discern the themes behind the subjects. The section on animals and hunts, for instance, contains a group of paintings of lion and tiger hunts. These exhibit dynamic compositions and ferocity of action, but they also indicate reservations about the gratuitous killing of animals that put the artist far ahead of his time.

In "Tiger Hunt" (1854) the tiger - its rich coat beautifully depicted in Delacroix's active brush strokes - comes under attack by a trio of hunters. It thus plays the role of lone hero attacked by villains. But true to his maturity, Delacroix also shows, with "Young Woman Attacked by a Tiger" (1856), that right isn't always on one side. Life is more ambiguous than that.

In his literary and mythological works, Delacroix frequently deals with human sorrows and injustices. One of his favorite authors was Shakespeare. In "Desdemona Cursed by Her Father" (1852), the artist, largely through color, emphasizes how simple it is to accuse, how difficult to prove innocence. Against the monochromatic red of the father's robe, the purple, white and gold color scheme of Desdemona's depiction is both more complex and less attention-grabbing.

"Ovid Among the Scythians" (1859) shows the Roman poet Ovid, who was banished to the shores of the Black Sea by the emperor Augustus. He sits on the ground wearing a toga, while a group of half-clad natives approach him tentatively. This has been seen as a metaphor for the artist among philistines, but in a more modern way it stands as an example of loneliness amid the crowd. It reflects Delacroix on several levels: as an artist; as a single man who had no family of his own; and as an agnostic, facing the possibility that God does not exist and man is alone in the largest sense.

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